Detroiters and hip-hop fans everywhere are celebrating what would have been J Dilla’s 50th birthday on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.
Though the legendary Detroit producer and artist died in 2006 at the young age of 32, his musical legacy is as strong as ever — both in the Motor City and around the world. Considered one of the most influential producers and beat makers of all time, Dilla (James Yancey) has worked with many renowned artists, including Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Questlove and Detroit’s own Amp Fiddler. He released three studio albums of his own before his death — and four others posthumously — in addition to the many compilation albums and production credits he amassed throughout his truncated career.
WDET’s Nick Austin spoke with Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey in 2016 to talk about her son’s lasting legacy and influence on Detroit’s music scene and beyond.
“He lived for music and that’s all he ever wanted to do.”
– Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, J Dilla’s mother
In the interview, Yancey said Dilla wrote and performed all types of music worldwide for every genre, contributing to his wide-reaching influence in the industry around the globe. She said her son had a special place in his heart for hip-hop and neo soul in particular, but he grew up listening to all genres of music.
“He was most happy when he did remixes for Miles Davis,” Yancey said. “Had he lived longer, he would have totally, you know, absorbed himself in jazz.”
Born into a musical family — his mother was an opera singer and his father, a jazz musician — he grew up listening to a lot of classical and jazz artists. Jazz vocal groups The Four Freshmen and The Manhattan Transfer were both staples in their house, Yancey said.
In was in his childhood home where Dilla began making his own beats and developing his unique production style.
“He had techniques of his own that still to this date, Amp Fiddler and other people don’t know how he really made it happen,” Yancey said in 2016. “The quality of the cassette tapes that he got, was much like somebody that had been to a studio.”
Though Dilla relocated to Los Angeles in 2004, Yancey said her son was most comfortable in his home studio in Detroit, which is likely why it took him as long as it did to move out of his native city. She said he was always an introvert, and music was his No. 1 passion.
“He lived for music and that’s all he ever wanted to do,” she said. “He never played with the truck, cars and toys…At two years old he was spinning records in a park, that was his happy time.”
Use the media player above for the full interview with J Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey.